Wednesdays he had come to dread. Wednesdays rolled around, and it was all he could do just to look like someone who gave a damn. Wednesdays meant getting to the stadium at 7:30 in the morning, his knees and neck still uncooperative from last week’s game, only to sit wedged behind a rickety little desk, nodding and note-taking as Coach Coughlin delivered one of his signature militant orations about last Sunday’s matchup, then about this Sunday’s opponent, and then as the offensive and defensive coordinators did their bit: deconstructing various blitz schemes and blocking formations and third-down personnel shifts. This sequence of lectures had once been so enlightening. But by the grim season of 2004 (Giants record: 6-10), it had started to wash over him, a wave of motivational platitudes. “It’s like I’m this 31-year-old kid” is how he describes feeling. “I can’t believe I’m treated like a 12-year-old when I’m 31.” Soon enough, his coaches took notice and started pulling him aside.
“What’s going on?”
“What do you mean?”
“Are you … bored?”
On the Saturday before his last game ever at Giants Stadium, Tiki Barber, the best running back in team history, sits slumped in a plush armchair in the sun-splashed living room of his Upper East Side apartment. Dressed in all black—black jeans, black cashmere sweater, black socks with a hole in one heel—he is a still point in a house of movement. His wife of seven years, Ginny, is fixing lunch in the kitchen; his two sons, A.J. and Chason, are chasing each other around a Christmas tree; and Ginny’s parents, who live with the family, are trying to get the boys into their jackets. Barber, meanwhile, is attempting to explain how he became so disillusioned with football that he decided to make this season his last.
“It’s like when I was in high school,” he says. “I never made below 100 percent on any assignment in math. The teacher would explain it once, and I’d have it.” He pauses to take a bite of the roast-beef sandwich that Ginny just dropped in his lap before running an errand with the kids. “The same thing,” Barber continues, “is happening to me as an NFL player. They explain, I get it, then they keep re-explaining it for another twenty minutes.” He speaks deliberately, projecting the same cool, vaguely mechanical confidence he does on the field. “I’ve gotten really good at it. The problem is—and the reason I know it’s time for me to go—is that I know I’m good at it. I don’t have to pay attention anymore. I’ve lost my … ” He considers, rephrases. “The challenge is not so much there anymore, which has caused my passion to wane.”
It’s a funny thing, the psychology of ambition: how even the most outsize dreams have a way of losing their potency the moment they’re attained. Stranger still is how a decrease in passion often brings about an increase in focus and skill. A graph charting Barber’s incredible rate of mid-career improvement and another showing his growing disenchantment with the game would reveal something curious: The rates of incidence are identical. “It’s true, isn’t it?” Barber acknowledges, flashing the halogen-bright smile he’s hoping will make him the rare athlete to have a broadcasting career that transcends sports reporting. For several months, he has been in negotiations with ABC, Fox, and NBC; it’s something he’s been itching to do since last year, when he was invited to Israel by former prime minister Shimon Peres, a trip that piqued his interest in hard news. “I became fascinated,” he says, “with history and how people think and what motivates people.”
His ambition is not what’s surprising; it’s his timing. “It’s only happened a handful of times that one of the best players decides to walk away,” says Cris Collinsworth, the star receiver who now does commentary for NBC and who has been particularly vocal in his bemusement over Barber’s decision to quit. “For all of us who were forced out due to age or injury, you get an uncomfortable feeling,” he says. “Like, if only I could switch bodies with this guy, I’d still be playing.” Collinsworth also suspects that Barber might be romanticizing the world of television. “Don’t get me wrong, I love my job,” he says. “But all of a sudden you’re just talking about other people. It’s like being a parent: The broadcaster is suddenly the least significant one in the family.” Collinsworth equates Barber’s early retirement with “forgoing childhood”—an odd analogy, perhaps, but one Barber would understand.